CREDIT: JEREMY HAY/EDSOURCE
Teacher Audra Clark with Giovanni Flores (l) and Jude Beaudoin at a North Bay Children's Center Preschool in Petaluma.

The high cost of child care and preschool is placing a financial strain on California families and has forced many parents of young children to make difficult tradeoffs regarding work and family life, including choosing lower quality programs or even leaving the workforce altogether.

These are among the findings of an EdSource survey of 640 parents in California with children 5 years old and younger. The representative poll was conducted last summer by phone and online survey by the polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3).  The margin of error for the overall sample  is +/- 3.8% at the 95% confidence level.

Nearly half (47 percent) of California families with young children said a parent left the job market to address child care needs. One in 10 said they were either encouraged to leave a job or fired because of the demands child care placed on their schedule.

Go to end of story to read about parents’ struggles to cover their child care and preschool costs. 

During the presidential campaign, President Donald Trump put forward a plan he said would “help every family with the costs of child care.” But it is too early to know the extent to which he will promote his plan, what it would consist of, or if it would receive support in Congress. In California, after several years of increases, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2017-18 budget does not include any additional state-supported child care slots. In fact, Brown proposed postponing adding 3,000 more slots that had been slated for the coming fiscal year.

Findings of the EdSource survey, which was underwritten by the Heising-Simons Foundation, include the following:

Most parents spend more than 10 percent of income on child care or preschool: About 7 in 10 (72 percent) of California parents surveyed who have young children in child care or preschool said they spend more than 10 percent of their incomes to cover the costs of these programs. And 45 percent of these parents said they spend between 10 percent and 30 percent of their incomes on child care or preschool. Of parents with children in a child care or preschool program, 34 percent said they pay $1,000 a month or more for child care, and 29 percent pay that amount for preschool.

Child care costs influence decisions on having children: More than 4 in 10 parents (43 percent) indicated that they chose to delay having another child because of concerns about the overall costs of raising a child, of which paying for child care and preschool is a significant part.

Child care costs make it difficult to save: Only one-third of parents (33 percent) said they were “always” or “very often” able to save money after they covered their living expenses each month. Another third (34 percent) said they are rarely or never able to save. The situation was especially challenging for parents who spend more than 30 percent of their income on child care. Of those parents, only 14 percent said they could save “always” or “very often.”

High costs of early childhood programs affect parents’ decisions about location and quality of programs: More than one-third (36 percent) of those polled said they chose a child care or preschool program that was less conveniently located than they would have preferred because it was more affordable. One in four (26 percent) said they had placed their child in what they felt was a lower quality child care or preschool program because it was one they could afford.

High California housing costs place additional burdens on parents: In many parts of the country, child care costs are parents’ biggest expense. However, in California, parents have the additional burden of paying for high housing costs. The vast majority of parents (74 percent) said housing was their biggest monthly household cost. Nearly half of parents (45 percent) who do not provide their own child care ranked child care costs as one of their biggest expenses or as a major expense.

The burden of child care costs varies geographically in the state: Where a parent lives has a major impact on the costs of early childhood programs. Four in 10 (41 percent) of parents in the San Francisco Bay Area cite child care and preschool costs as one of their biggest expenses or a major expense, followed by 31 percent of those in Los Angeles County. That compares with 23 percent of parents in counties surrounding Los Angeles.

A large number of parents take care of children themselves during the week: Nearly half of parents (45 percent) say they or another parent or guardian take care of children themselves. And 61 percent of parents say they or another parent or guardian take care of their children for at least part of the work week during daytime hours.

High-income families are more likely to list child care or preschool as a major expense: Nearly twice as many families (43 percent) with incomes of $120,000 or more a year list child care and preschool as one of their biggest expenses or a major expense, compared to families with incomes of $60,000 or less per year (22 percent). Half of parents (50 percent) with incomes of $120,000 or more say they spend $1,000 or more on child care or preschool, and 20 percent say they spend more than $2,000 a month. By comparison, 10 percent of parents with incomes of $60,000 or less say they spend more than $1,000 a month, and 3 percent say they spend more than $2,000 monthly.

Half of Latinos say child care places a financial strain on families: Latino families are more likely to say that child care and preschool costs place a great deal or some strain on their families (50 percent), compared to white families (35 percent).

Parents feel they are getting their money’s worth: An encouraging finding was that despite the costs, nearly three-quarters of parents (72 percent) said they felt that the quality of care their child was receiving was worth what they paid for it. This is especially relevant because just over half of parents (56 percent) believe that the quality of their child’s child care or preschool program will have a major impact on their child’s success in life.

Parents want additional state support to cover early childhood programs: Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of parents said California should do more to provide opportunities for young children to attend preschool. Nearly 7 in 10 (68 percent) of parents supported increasing the sales tax on sweetened beverages or tobacco products to pay for expanded early childhood programs. But far fewer support raising property taxes (27 percent) or income taxes (32 percent) for all California residents to do so.

For more details on the poll, go here.

                  PARENTS SHARE THEIR STORIES

Contributed by:  EdSource reporters Justin Allen, Sue Frey, and Fermin Leal

Click on photos below to read about their struggles to cover costs.

Katherine and Ronald De Angelis

Costa Mesa, CA

Katherine and Ronald De Angelis, who live in Costa Mesa in Orange County, are currently considering different options for child care for their 11-month-old son Dominic. Katherine, a publicist, and Ronald, an art gallery manager, had used Katherine’s family as the primary source of full-time day care since she returned to work after maternity leave.

“Currently my dad and brother have been helping out with caring for Dominic," Katherine said. "It’s been a huge help to us even though that means my husband drives three hours a day round trip to drop him off from our place in Costa Mesa to their house 40 miles away in Diamond Bar – he works in Arcadia.

"Alas, my dad is in his 70s and he doesn’t have the stamina to look after an increasingly active baby and it’s unfair to keep asking my brother to put his fledgling business on hold to look after Dominic, so they gave us a deadline of Dominic’s first birthday (March 3) to find alternate child care. So, starting next week, we found a nanny to come take care of Dominic two to three days a week, but we are still scrambling to find child care for the rest of the work week, so we’re pretty stressed out.”

Katherine said child care costs will make it difficult for the couple, both in their mid-30s, to save money. Much of their savings was exhausted after Ronald became unemployed right before Dominic was born, when Ronald’s decade-long job relocated out of state. Meanwhile, Katherine received roughly half of her salary for four months while on maternity leave.

“It’s been a struggle financially,” she said. “It took awhile for us to bounce back. And just when we thought we could start to save, we’re now looking at spending well over $2,000 a month on child care, which definitely cuts into anything we would try to put into any kind of savings.”

She said child care costs will play a significant role in their plans to have more children. They’re currently not thinking of having more children.

"If you would have asked me before I got pregnant what I thought was necessary to have a child, I would have naively answered: a well-paying job, a good husband/partner. It never occurred to me to think I had to factor in child care. It was stupid at the time, but my parents had been egging us on to have children as soon as we got married, especially since I was in my mid-30s, so I just assumed that also meant they would help take care of the baby when I returned to work. It never occurred to me that when my mom said she would retire to specifically help take care of my son that she would then renege on her offer and we would be in this predicament of having to find and pay for child care. If money were not an issue – and also my ‘advanced’ maternal age – I would actually consider having another child."

Katherine said she would not consider lower quality child care options even if they might be significantly more affordable than higher quality services.

"I feel at his young age, I want him to receive attentive one-on-one care. That’s why we were really focused on hiring a nanny based off a trusted referral from a friend of ours so that we weren’t going with a complete stranger. He’s our first and only child so I might be erring on the side of caution.”

The couple has also considered working less or even one of them quitting a job to take care of their son at home. But they’re unsure how they would make the finances work in a region with a high cost of living. So cutting back their work hours might be out of the question for now.

“That would be a best-case scenario for me and would make me feel happy, but that’s likely not feasible,” Katherine said. “I love the work I get to do, I really do. But I have just one child and I will never get this time back with him, these early years.”

Karla Leon Guerrero

San Francisco, CA

Karla Leon Guerrero and her husband Manny Gomez live in the San Francisco Glen Park neighborhood with their daughter, Lola, who is 2-1/2 years old.

After Lola was born, Manny quit his seasonal job as a park ranger so he could take on most of the child-rearing duties. Last August the couple placed Lola in child care for the first time, which freed Manny to complete classes and internships in landscaping and gardening. In January Manny returned to full-time work, as a gardener for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.

Before Lola was born, Karla was a special education teacher at a public K-8 school in San Francisco, but the demands of parenting required a career change.

"Six weeks after she was born, I looked for a new position outside of the classroom, because I knew I couldn’t stay in a classroom position anymore with the demands of being a mom," she said.

Karla became a teacher coach, helping veteran underperforming teachers reach standards, emergency and intern teachers build classroom management skills, and teacher candidates pursue certification. The new job didn’t require her to be tied to a specific school site, and gave her more flexible hours within a 9-to-5 schedule.

To keep costs down, the family keeps Lola in child care part-time, three days a week. Manny watches her on a weekday he has off, and his father watches her on another weekday.

Still, child care is the family’s second-biggest expense after rent – about 20 percent of their household income.

When asked if the impact of child care costs had influenced their choices around having more children, Karla said, "absolutely."

"At this point, having a second child is not realistic. It's not even possible," she said.

The high cost of housing in San Francisco was also a factor.

"We live in a one-bedroom apartment, and we haven’t moved because we can’t afford to find anywhere else," Karla said. "Now that Lola’s finally a toddler, and sleeps in her own bed, where would we put the next one?"

Even if they stayed in their current apartment, Karla could not see how they would be able to make it work spending 40 percent of their income in child care.

“We are trying to save, to be able to put a down payment on a home,” Karla said, but they are finding it difficult to see a way forward in the Bay Area long term. They are considering moving to Guam, where Karla grew up.

When asked if she would vote for higher taxes to expand eligibility for state-supported child care options, Karla said “I would definitely consider voting on extra taxes for that. I absolutely support the idea of more state intervention and supplementing of child care and preschool options and early ed options for families.”

Matt Monte

San Francisco, CA

Until their son Miles started kindergarten, Matt and Stephanie Monte listed child care as their second-highest expense, right after rent in the Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco.

When Miles was born, Matt had a demanding job working for a publishing company and was only able to take six days off for paternity leave. His wife needed to return to full-time work after 2 1/2 months.

Matt is now a technical writer, and Stephanie is a graphic designer who works in the East Bay. Miles, who is 6, is currently in 1st grade in a San Francisco public school.

When Miles was in child care, he needed to be there for long days to cover his parents’ work schedules, Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. While the cost of child care had been significant for their family, they had not been without some good luck, Matt said.

“For child care, before preschool, we got a very good deal” from a family friend, who charged $1,000 a month. Miles was immersed in a multilingual environment with English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

Another thing that helped was that Matt’s employer offered a flexible spending account (FSA), which allowed him to set aside a portion of his earnings pre-tax to use on childcare.

“It wasn’t a huge windfall,” Matt said, "but it helped.”

Unfortunately, it also made job mobility difficult as this account was tied to Matt’s job. Stephanie’s employer – and many others – did not offer the same benefit. Matt stayed longer at his job than he otherwise would have because of the FSA.

The Montes say the high cost of child care and living in California has limited them in other ways.

When asked if the high living costs had affected their choices regarding family planning, Matt said that “it’s hard to give a breakdown, but living in arguably the most expensive city in the country” was definitely a factor.

“Even though my wife would have liked to have more children, we couldn’t afford more than one. Child care expenses, along with medical expenses and the whole picture, made us say one and done.”

Matt noted that a former colleague whose spouse was from Berlin decided when they started a family to leave San Francisco and move to Germany where they would get free or reduced medical care and state-subsidized child care.

Monica Rodriguez

Fresno, CA

Monica Rodriguez, who lives in Fresno, is a single mother with three children: her daughter Destiny, 13; her son, Rey Anthony, 16 months; and her daughter Reina Marie, 5 months.

“I’m barely making it paycheck to paycheck,” Monica said. She works as an intake worker at the Central Valley Children’s Services Network. She receives no child care assistance because her income is “$80 to $90 a month over the limit,” she said.

Destiny is at Cooper Academy, a middle school that offers a before- and after-school program. The younger children are being taken care by a licensed day care provider in her home.

Monica has to pay more than $1,000 a month in day care costs. She gets some financial help from the children’s godparents, and she has friends or relatives who watch the children from four to 10 days a month. She only has to pay her day care provider if the children are there.

Child care is her second biggest expense after rent, she said. Without the help of friends and relatives, “I’d probably go back on county assistance,” she said.

Monica said she is not able to save money. “The only time I can look forward to getting things I want rather than need is when I get my tax return,” she said. She is hoping this year to replace her old couches and buy something extra, such as toys, for her children.

Abby Serin

Sacramento, CA

Abby and Jordan Serin, who live in Sacramento, have had their 4-year-old daughter Eliza in some form of child care since she was just over 3 months old. When her daughter was born, Abby was working as a pediatric nurse at a major hospital in the city. Jordan works as an archeologist for the forest service in El Dorado County.

After her eight weeks of maternity leave was up, Abby returned to work. She worked three 12-hour shifts a week – Saturday and Sunday, plus a weekday – and Jordan worked four 10-hour shifts a day during the week, plus a one-hour commute each way. To ensure care for Eliza, they worked staggered schedules and enlisted Abby’s sister, who they paid for her time, to provide child care two days a week.

Abby said the long work days were difficult to pair with the demands of parenting, and the unconventional schedules meant that the family was together only “one day a week, and every other week, two days a week.”

Abby began to consider a career shift to get a better schedule. But that would mean a loss in the income they had become accustomed to, which comfortably paid for child care help.

She found an open position for school nurse in the Davis Joint Unified School District, where she could work shorter shifts and daytime hours. The job paid less than half her position at the hospital, but it offered child care assistance through the school district.

“The driving factor was me being able to spend more time with my family,” Abby said. But as she considered the shift, it was a major help that subsidized child care was available at her new job.

Still, child care is a considerable expense for the Serins, taking up what Abby estimates is 15 percent of their monthly income.

“It’s the second-most expensive thing we pay for. It’s mortgage, and then child care. I know what we pay compared to what other people pay, and I know that we pay less. But yes – it absolutely is a significant cost. We can’t wait to get rid of it.”

Asked if she supported expanded state support of early childhood education and subsidized child care, Abby said, “Absolutely. I can’t understand how someone would answer differently.” Abby also said she would consider voting for tax increases to pay for it.

This article was updated on Feb. 17 to clarify Karla Leon Guerrero's job description.

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  1. Paul 6 months ago6 months ago

    This poses a real dilemma. On one hand, women still bear a disproportionate share of the burden of raising children. Childcare and preschool subsidies reduce interruptions to women's careers and place a higher financial value on women's labor. As such, subsidies are a step toward gender equality. High-quality preschool produces better outcomes for children, too. Individuals, and society as a whole, benefit. On the other hand, no post-facto government intervention can erase economic disparities, placing children from … Read More

    This poses a real dilemma.

    On one hand, women still bear a disproportionate share of the burden of raising children. Childcare and preschool subsidies reduce interruptions to women’s careers and place a higher financial value on women’s labor. As such, subsidies are a step toward gender equality. High-quality preschool produces better outcomes for children, too. Individuals, and society as a whole, benefit.

    On the other hand, no post-facto government intervention can erase economic disparities, placing children from low-income families on the same footing as children whose parents are well off. A free lunch comprised of unsaleable agricultural surplus, with unlimited servings of fried potatoes (by law), and ketchup for the day’s vegetable (again, by law), cannot replace a homemade meal. Waiting in line at a community dental clinic is not the same as going to a private pediatric dentist. A subsidized daycare facility cannot assure the same level of attention as a mother or father on parental leave.

    The greater benefit to individuals, and to society, is for people who cannot afford children not to have them. Children should receive the very best services, but at the same time, would-be parents should be made to understand that having children is an economic choice.

    Parents can hardly claim that the cost of childcare was unexpected. It’s too late to complain now!

    People in the middle class understand financial management and have relatively easy access to effective contraception. They have no excuses.

    What societal changes can we make so that people with lower incomes will gain better access to effective contraception and be better able to anticipate and plan for the costs of parenthood?